The journey of a naturally dyed yarn

plant-based dyeing of eri silk yarn - Muezart Meghalaya

My eyes were opened. Wide open! I understood nature with new admiration. Validated, through firsthand experience, I saw how nature provides all the resources for coloring cloth. My journey of creating naturally dyed yarn was thrilling. The only missing ingredient was sharing it with you. I dream of the day that you will join Muezart on a similar journey and create your story of color with a soul.

Come with me. We’ll trek the forest, hunt for plants, chop the plants, cook with natural mordants, and create a naturally dyed yarn.

charcoal gray eri silk yarn died with iron ore natural dye

Eri silk yarn naturally dyed with iron ore

How to create natural dyed gray color

The local women of Margnar know their land and forest like the back of their hand. They trek the woods in search of plants. But there was one thing they didn’t know. On the top of a nearby hill, iron ore lay on the ground. Our leader, Rupali, had been trained in plant-based dyeing by an experienced weaver from Umdin. She learned how to saturate eri silk with the natural color made with iron ore as the primary ingredient. Her artisan designed shawls and stoles woven with this gray yarn were a prized possession.

Kong Rupali plant based dye trainer

Four of us from the Muezart team stayed with Kong Rupali in her home. She trained us in how to dye eri silk yarn using plants for color and mordants for fixing the color. Pictured wither her two daughters, Baphi, Miranda, and Joanna

There was a hitch with continuing to weave in this beautiful gray color. She had to source the iron ore from Sohra and pay a premium price for the raw material. One day, Rupali happened to tell her husband, Silvester, about the sourcing obstacle. He was ecstatic about her problem and proceeded to repeat the story to me with intense enthusiasm.

The story told to me by Sylvester when I stayed in their home:

“When I was little, I played cowboys in the forest. I would play, play, play all day and do my studying late into the night. I know every hill in the forest. I know which land belongs to each family. When Rupali told me they were buying iron ore all the way from Sohra, I said, Stop! Stop! Why buy from Sohra? We have it right here. I know exactly where we can find it on the top of a certain hill. It’s not on every hill, but it is abundant in one hill. It’s on the hill with the giant black stone monolith.”

monolith stone rock Meghalaya

It’s a perfect story! The missing piece to an important color puzzle. Kong Rupali and many Rhi Bhoi weavers have been gathering iron ore from the hill with the giant monolith rock since the telling of the story.

A training expedition in naturally dyed yarn

With knives, machete, baskets, and bags in toe, we left the village at 10 AM to collect 8 kilograms of the heavy black brittle hard substance. It was quite a hike to the top. But that didn’t matter, especially when we could enjoy fresh spring water along the way.

collecting iron ore with weavers in Rhi Bhoi - Muezart

Rhi Bhoi weavers collecting iron ore to create the natural gray color

We reached the top of a hill. The Bhoi farmers were weeding and caring for their pineapple crop. The ladies knew exactly where to go. Immediately they started to dig up the top layer of iron ore. This rock is easily available, right on the surface of the soil. It is scattered amongst the ready to harvest pineapple plants.

We gathered all that we needed. Our plan was to naturally dye the handspun eri silk yarn we brought to the weavers for dyeing. During the hike, we collected many more plants to use as mordants. Plants to create a natural green and yellow color. With our plant treasures loaded in baskets and bags, we started the trek back to the village. The total journey to collect multiple plant-based ingredients took three hours. We were on a training expedition, with 24 of us in total. It was fun!

hiking out of the forest with our plant-based dyes - Muezart

Hiking back to Marngar with plants and iron ore for dying eri silk yarn

The process of creating one color

With natural elements in hand, the production process began. The team of weavers training us in natural dyeing quickly got to work.

The raw material for dyeing:

  1. handspun eri silk yarn
  2. Mill-spun eri silk yarn

Oh the time it takes

The ingredients needed for naturally dyeing one kilogram of eri silk yarn was astounding. We had spent three hours hiking up hills and foraging the forest. Now we needed to cut and chop up 4 kilograms of mordant:

  1. 2 kilograms of a green leaf called Sla Sohtun (khasi)
  2. 2 kilograms of Snep Dieg Sohmylleng (khasi). This is the bark from the gooseberry tree (Phyllanthus Emblica Tree)
  3. 1 kilogram of finely powdered iron ore

weighing plants for dyeing mordant from a bark of a tree iron ore for dyeing

The last element was the hardest to process. We all joined in. It took many hands to crush the black ironstones. We quickly discovered that we needed to innovate a better way for crushing this mineral into a powder. Charcoal gray is a beautiful color. We were determined to figure out a faster way of processing. Because we know Muezart plans to use the natural gray color in many hand-woven products. Customers love it.

Cutting, chopping, grinding and crushing

It took five hours to prepare all the ingredients and place into the large boiling pot of water. But that’s not just the work of one person. We had multiple people on the job. A cumulative total of 25 focused hours.

Joanna crushing iron ore stone for natural dyes - Muezart Miranda crushing iron ore stone - Muezart

Boiling the big pot of water

We filled large steel pots with 15 liters of water and placed them over the firewood. All the ingredients, except the yarn, set to boil for a few hours.

Straining the dye bath

The boiled water was then strained from the plants. We placed the iron ore powder in a self-contained cloth so that we could get a clean bath of black color to soak the 1 kilogram of yarn.

sack of one kg of iron ore for dyeing 1 kg of eri silk yarn

Impurities removal and prepping the yarn

Meanwhile, as the above was taking place, the yarn was treated in water to filter the impurities and prepare the eri silk. We soaked the natural yarn in water before placing it in the large pot of black colored water.

Boiling and prolonged soak of the yarn

The wet silk yarn was cooked over the fire for one hour. The pot was covered. The yarn was kept inside the pot of deep black water for a full night soak. The morning would determine if the prolonged soak had helped the deep black color find its way into the eri fiber.

boiling the eri silk yarn in the dye bath - Muezart

Washing the yarn

The following day, we checked the color. Success! It was a deep, rich gray. We had been diligent in our process. The yarn is ready for a thorough wash. We use a ph balanced hand soap. As the eri is washed, you can feel the texture of the yarn. A reminder of the miraculous way this little known silk is created. Be careful. The use of regular soap will destroy all the hard work put into natural color.

washing the eri yarn

Yarn set to dry

We carefully rinsed and wrung out the yarn. Threads were detangled. We placed 1 kilogram on a bamboo rod to dry. Take care to dry in full shade. Exposure to the rays of the sun will naturally bleach the color.

eri yarn set to dry

How long does it take to make a natural dye color: charcoal gray

  • 15 – collection from the forest (5 people x 3 hours)
  • 25 – production of the ingredients (5 people x 5 hours)
  • 12 – overnight soaking of the yarn
  • 3 – washing and hanging the yarn to dry (3 people x 1 hour)
  • 12 – the yarn is left for complete drying in the shade

Miranda being trained by Kong Rupali in plant-based dyeing

Miranda learning about mordants for plant-based dyeing from Kong Rupali.

Since we were in training, our yarn portion was small (1 kilogram of eri yarn). One kilo of yarn can weave three medium size wraps. If the gray color had been too light, the entire process would need to be repeated. The second soak would require more plants and iron ore added to the bath. Recipe proportions can be increased to dye 3 kilograms of yarn in the large pots. Increasing the amount of firewood needed and additional natural ingredients. The bath must contain the same ratio of ingredients to water in order to reach the expected color.

Almost Done!

62 total hours to color only 1 kilogram of yarn. That is the journey of slow color. This is the hidden story behind regenerating a natural process. Behind the scene production of one segment of slow fashion.

The result of this process is an unquestionable story of color with a soul. A story that has the potential to deeply impact you, me, a community of women weavers and our world. Gray is a timeless, neutral, practical color. May the essence of this timeless color feed the practical vision of Muezart – where every purchase has a purpose.